BALTIMORE — A Baltimore board on Wednesday authorized a city spending plan extending a multimillion dollar contract with the country’s dominant vendor of body cameras for police departments.
At the mayor’s request, the city’s Board of Estimates amended an existing $11.7 million contract with Axon Enterprise Inc. designed to equip some 2,500 city officers with body cams. The contract, which includes the Arizona-based company’s software and data storage, is now worth $18.5 million and continues until 2023.
In recent years, civil rights activists around the country have called for body cameras following a succession of deadly police shootings and other fatal encounters with citizens, particularly unarmed black men. The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore were major catalysts.
These are boom times for Axon, the name of the Scottsdale-headquartered company’s body camera line. More than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries are now part of its network, according to its website.
Chad Marlow, an advocacy and policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Axon, formerly Taser International, has become the dominant market player largely “because it has leveraged the relationships that it has with police departments based on its Taser products.”
As body cams become more widespread, inconsistencies in how law enforcement agencies around the country deal with the footage have raised concerns among community activists and others who look to the videos to bring greater transparency in police interactions with citizens.
Some critics worry the technology is not being used as a tool for transparency, but rather as a tool to further law enforcement interests.
“These cameras are going to primarily help the police and prosecutors gather evidence for their prosecutions, which will further exacerbate the immense harms of biased policing,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a Washington-based nonprofit which has been studying the issue for several years.
The Baltimore Police Department has been quite proactive in releasing body cam footage following police shootings, according to Yu. Yet it was not immediately clear whether there was a policy requiring them to do so.
With Axon body cams introduced in phases in Baltimore, there are concerns about how some officers have used them so far.
Earlier this year, a grand jury indicted a Baltimore police officer on charges of fabricating evidence and misconduct months after public defenders released a body camera video that they say shows him planting drugs in an empty soup can.
“How often do cops do this and not get caught? The outcomes of course would be ruinous for defendants, as there would then exist a fake but convincing video that appears to link a suspect to a crime,” Yu said.
In late January, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office announced it would not charge three other Baltimore police officers who made headlines after getting separately accused of being caught on body-camera video planting evidence last year.
Baltimore officers have been instructed to activate their cameras during any interaction with the public, before they turn on their lights and sirens. Under a revised policy, they must keep their cameras on from the beginning of an event until that event is concluded and they have left the scene.
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